Erin Matson ’22, UNC’s most decorated women’s field hockey player and arguably the greatest women’s player of all time, has been named Carolina’s next head field hockey coach. She follows Karen Shelton, who announced her retirement in December.
Matson said in a press conference on Thursday she’s always dreamt of coaching the sport she loves, knows the ins and outs of Carolina’s program and is the best person to replace Shelton, who coached the team for 42 years.
Shelton, who became the program’s head coach in 1981 at the age of 23, retired after winning 10 national championships, 25 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and posting five undefeated seasons. Matson, who played on four of those national championship teams, was announced as Shelton’s successor on Jan. 31.
Matson graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in communications and media after collecting numerous awards and records on the field, including three Honda sport awards for field hockey (Shelton is the only other player to win the award three times), the all-time scoring leader in ACC history and NCAA tournament play, and five ACC Offensive Player of the Year awards. Matson also started on three of Carolina’s five undefeated field hockey teams.
Matson honed her skills in the basement of her home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where she punched holes in the wall and nicked the furniture as she practiced her shots, according to a 2020 feature in the Carolina Alumni Review. As a freshman living in Avery Residence Hall overlooking Shelton Stadium, where the lights stayed on until 10 p.m., she would frequently sneak out to the field with a bucket of balls to practice shots. Her teammates at the time said they didn’t know how much time Matson practiced on her own. “I enjoy it, and it makes me better,” Matson told the Review at the time. “So why wouldn’t I want to do it?”
During the press conference held via Zoom, Matson acknowledged it’s surreal to be named head coach of UNC’s field hockey program just one month after graduating and two months after the squad capped off another undefeated season and winning the school’s record 10th national title. She said, however, she never considered working at a smaller, lesser-known school to gain experience before assuming the head coaching position at the nation’s preeminent institution for women’s field hockey.
Matson was asked whether Shelton ever hinted that she wanted Matson to succeed her. “Obviously it was a little tricky because we’d just won a national championship and that was on everyone’s mind,” Matson said. “But yes, the ball got rolling as soon as possible. I had thought about this longer than August. It’s been a thing in the back of my mind, obviously compartmentalizing it. Season comes first. Graduating came first.”
Matson said she’s always loved coaching, but before the past year never thought it could be something she’d do for life.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching at clubs. I’ve enjoyed coaching through social media,” she said. “Even in the team film room and sitting down with my teammates in the past and … coaching in different ways. I’ve been very fortunate to have a very strong support network of coaches around me throughout my entire career to ask questions.”
Shelton said in an interview with the Review shortly after announcing her retirement she was confident she was leaving the field hockey program in good hands. “This staff is the best staff that we’ve had in the history of our coaches, and I’ve had a lot of great coaches,” she said.
Matson said she plans to keep the coaches currently on staff because of their experience and the chance to lean on them when needed. She added she is “looking forward to seeing how that relationship changes and progresses as well.”
Matson said since her hiring was announced, other UNC coaches have reached out to offer their congratulations and support. “There are so many greats to learn from. It’s not like I just have only one or two options,” she said. Former head basketball coach “Roy Williams, you know, I can text him if I want right now. Like, excuse me. Is this real? It’s insane to have this support.”
Matson said she’ll draw heavily from Shelton’s expertise and said there are similarities that go beyond the Honda Sport Award. For example, Shelton, who grew up just 15 miles from Matson’s hometown and whom Matson met at age 9, was only 23 when she became UNC’s head coach. Matson will turn 23 on March 17. Even so, Matson said she’ll work to put her own stamp on the field hockey program.
“It’s definitely going to be a different part in our relationship, figuring out that balance of how much presence she’ll have, how much she’ll be around the stadium, when will that be,” Matson said. “We’ve already begun to have those conversations and that will continue.”
Matson shied away from calling the field hockey program hers, saying, “It’s … my opportunity to influence and kind of run the program. Definitely not my program.”
She credited Shelton for building UNC’s field hockey program from the ground up and plans to keep much of what Shelton built because of the success of the program, but added she will look at areas that can be tweaked and “modernize some things, … making it more relatable, especially to young recruits.”
— Laurie D. Willis ’86